Stanley Cowell: Brillant Circles (1969) Freedom

Stanley-Cowell-Brilliant-Circles-cover-1800-LJCSelection: Boo Ann’s Grand (Shaw)


Woody Shaw (trumpet, maracas) Tyrone Washington (tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet, maracas) Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone) Stanley Cowell (piano) Reggie Workman (bass, electric bass) Joe Chambers (drums) recorded Olmstead Sound Studios, NYC, September 25, 1969, produced for  Black Lion label by Alan Bates and Chris Whent.

Stanley Cowell’s  recording career of forty-five years to date, including founding the ’70s the post-Bop/spiritual jazz label Strata East with trumpeter Charles Tolliver, combining solo and group concert performance and recording with a university teaching role. At latest look, one still with us.


Time for some un-smooth jazz. Musically always interesting to push the boundaries, see if they have moved further out, over time, they usually they have. However, as is customary when faced by more challenging music, LJC opts for a jaunty bopper, the  Woody Shaw composition, Boo Ann’s Grand – a tune given a more straight-ahead reading two years previously by Jackie McLean (with Woody) on his 1967 album Demon’s Dance .

Brilliant Circles one of two albums in Cowell’s 1969 debut as leader, alongside the more provocatively titled album Blues For The Viet Cong (Cowell presumably  mislaid his draft card). Jazz poised half way between hard bop and the avant-garde: intellectually more challenging and interesting listening than some directions being taken by jazz at the end of the ’60s, elsewhere heading for electric prog-jazz-rock-fusion and funk (cue, howls of protest)

The sextet format gives Cowell a rich instrumental palette to work with: Woody Shaw’s bright trumpet, Hutcherson’s coolly abstract vibraphone infusion, Tyrone Washington’s gritty buzz-saw tenor, resting on supple rhythmic foundations of Workman and Chambers,  melodic directions shifting between modal post-bop and  “out there”  avant-garde, loose and less predictable.

Tyrone Washington is a curiosity. His tenor appears on  the last official Blue Note  BLP 4250 Horace Silver’s under-rated gem The Jody Grind, and he  led his own Liberty/Blue Note album BLP 4274  Natural Essence, with largely the same players but Kenny Barron on piano. On the brink of a promising bop/avant career, Washington disappeared from the music scene altogether in the mid ’70s , and never recorded again.

Later recordings saw Stanley Cowell turn to the electric piano, often partnered with more electric instruments, which (for me) lack the purity of the fully acoustic ensemble. This early album falls neatly into the vinyl audiophile modern  jazz listen-up! circle, but there are no doubt other titles in Cowell’s large discography worthy of attention. Problem is, I don’t know what they are. Suggestions?

Vinyl: Cover Art on Trial

Judge-LJCAllegations of similarity between the US release cover of Cowell’s Brilliant Circles and Herbie Hancock’s Thrust have been made but are clearly misplaced. For a start, Cowell is facing left, while Hancock is facing right, couldn’t be more different, fundamentally opposite directions.  Any other likeness, such as the use of a space theme and space bubble, can be dismissed as mere coincidence. And while Thrust is largely purple in hue, Brilliant Circles contains, umm.. much more green. So, not at all similar, the appellant’s claim of plagiarism is dismissed.


auguste-renoir-demeerkatCompareTheCover says:

I prefer the funky Cowell US cover to the more cerebral solarised photography of the European edition. In today’s world of Photoshop special effects, effects are not so special any more.

The Hancock design is aptly more funky, but Cowell wins on points for artfully blending of real-life Cowell with unreal space painting.  Hancock is comic-strip art, Cowell takes a leaf out of Sun Ra, and is playing, not posing like for  a selfie. The Hancock Thrust cover depends on the illustrator’s art for all elements, homogenous, but not quite as ” visually playful”. I declare Cowell the cover winner.

Then there is the more “serious” Black Lion cover which loses points for failing to design-in any visual cross-reference to the album title, like how the spacey cover neatly counterpoints several circular design elements  within a square frame.  Nothing either brilliant or at all circular about the Black Lion. Worthy but dull.


Cowell’s intellectual credentials are underlined by a learned gatefold with bonus photo and liner notes. That’s put it up a notch.




Collectors Corner

Found in a flea-market record stall in the corner of a North Italian seaside town, no-one more surprised than me to see it, entirely out of its time and place, snuggling between cheesy 70’s and ’80s pop records.




19 thoughts on “Stanley Cowell: Brillant Circles (1969) Freedom

  1. I recommend Charles Tolliver’s “The Ringer” spiritual jazz classic featuring Cowell
    Video of this group:
    Cowell’s “Musa Ancestral Streams” solo piano recording. Unique and beautiful.
    Cowell’s piano trio “Back to the Beautiful”
    and any of the Steeplechase recordings. I like Set-up [Sextet] and Departure #2 [Trio]

  2. Absolutely love Stanley Cowell. I will buy pretty much anything he’s on and that includes his fantastic new releases for Steeplechase. He’s still making great music. I have the black cover-Arista Freedom copy of this. It’s a promo with a massive corner cut. But I love this record and especially Woody Shaw’s playing on it.

    Do you have Clifford Jordan’s Glass Bead Games?

    Absolute masterpiece with Stanley Cowell playing on I think half the tunes, wonderfully.

    Also – love the label, never noticed the “Stanco Co. Co.” – that’s great.

  3. Excellent stuff. I’ve got a few Freedom/Arista LPs but not this one and nor was it on my radar. It is now. Great to see tastes and listening expanding here on LJC. We must seek our pleasures how and where we can find them…and afford them… That almost sounds like a quote from Dominique Strauss-Kahn, doesn’t it, and indeed maybe he did say it first…

    On the other hand, “gritty buzz-saw tenor” is an LJC original and a damned accurate one. Great tenor. I must look for a copy of this. Funky but no electrics — that’s what I like.

  4. Check out “Another Earth” by Gary Bartz on Milestone. An obscure session from 1969 with Stanley Cowell (it’s where I first heard him), Reggie Workman, and Freddy Waits. The quartet is joined by Charles Tolliver and Pharoah Sanders on the extended title track, a wild ride that takes up all of side one. It’s a great record.

    And it’s always great to hear that one can still score an amazing find at a flea market!!

  5. You must listen to Illusion Suite. It’s a bit funky in spirit with Stanley Clarke(!) on electric bass. One of my favs. Equipoise is also fantastic, if a bit more trad.

    Cowell together with Charles Tolliver started Strata East records, a ‘radical’ label during that time where the musicians retained the rights to their music. Records on this label is worth seeking out and is quite collectable. I especially like the Tolliver albums, frequently with Cowell on piano. Most of the music falls under the rubric of “spiritual jazz”, an odd sounding category that’s supposed to cover jazz music that had elements of funk and soul in it, some ‘free’ elements but with a bit more feeling. It includes music from artists such as Pharoah Sanders, Chico Freeman, John Hicks, etc during the late 1960s and 1970s. If avant garde jazz is not your cup of tea, spiritual jazz may be palatable.

  6. Andrew,
    Ahhhh…another opportunity to bring up the German label ECM (1026). Stanley Cowell Trio relaesed “Illusion Suite” in 1972 with Stanley Clarke (!) and Jimmy Hopps. I haven’t spun it in a while, but given that early period of ECM I expect an adventure. No noticable eggs on the cover.

  7. Andy, you seem to have overlooked a vital factor in all that cover analysis: is that really a fried egg? Given that it’s sunny side up, it must be a UK pressing, no?

    • No, Martin. The label has the GEMA (German royalty collection agency) acronym and critically states “Made in Western Germany“. Now I appreciate that “sunny side up” is a British egg tradition, but there is a clue in those words “Made in Western Germany”. Granted it rules out being made in East Germany, but it also sheds considerable doubt on the notion that it might be a UK pressing. I’m guessing here, I could be wrong, but I think it’s “German”

      How do Germans like their eggs fried? Wiki tells us fried eggs (Spiegeleier) are a crucial part of such traditional German dishes as Strammer (the egg is fried on one side with an unbroken yolk, and served “sunny-side up” on top of an open ham sandwich)

      There is a body of evidence here which careful study points to a country whose name begins with the letter “G”

      • Serves me right for only looking at the cover and not inspecting the labels closely enough. Schoolboy error and the yoke’s on me. I shouldn’t have commented on an empty stomach! Still, you know the Hutcherson, Chambers, Cowell axis was always going to get the thumbs up from me.

          • Maybe its time for a German guy to enter this discussion to bring a bit of light to the details.
            Regarding the label: Spiegelei Records was a small imprint of Intercord in the 70s and 80s, covering the more progressive styles like Krautrock and Jazz. They did rarely use their own label name and design. Very in demand funk/groove records are the ones of the band Mombasa (highly recommended).
            Regarding the dish: What you describe is actually called “Strammer Max” which means something like “tight / sturdy Max”. Not something to be proud of in any culinary discussion. But…, well, I was raised on this stuff.

  8. The directions he went with the Strata East guys was fascinating. Some very interesting records in that neck of the jazz woods.

  9. I really like the Music, Inc. Live at Slugs vols I and II on Strata East. Similar to Brilliant Circles, recorded a year later, but a bit further out. The tracks are longer, so everybody has more time to stretch out. Charles Tolliver really shines.

  10. Andrew, Then there’s also this cover, circa 1992 found on Spotify. Stanley Cowell – Brilliant Circles



    And no mention of Brilliant Corners, Monk?

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